Power to Speak: Why I Sued the LAPD
My press pass didn’t seem to matter when I was tackled, cuffed and belittled during the sweep to rid Occupy protesters from L.A. City Hall
By Calvin Milam
I worked for City News Service (CNS), an Associated Press-like wire service for local and regional news, as both a reporter and an editor for nearly a quarter-century. Before that, I worked for the now long-defunct but still widely respected Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
But after being arrested in the LAPD’s military-like sweep to rid L.A. City Hall’s lawn of Occupy protesters in late November 2011, I realized no one was going to stand up for me: Not my employer, not my union, not other media outlets.
I’m now unemployed, bankrupt and living on a 75-year-old sailboat in Marina del Rey.
Here’s how it happened: I had been filing stories about the Occupy demonstration for most of the day, and later that night after showing a police officer my LAPD media pass I crossed a line formed by police to keep demonstrators at bay. However, I was quickly pounced upon by officers dressed in riot gear. They threw me to the ground, handcuffed me, verbally belittled me, and then arrested me.
They tried to say I did not show my pass and that I was drunk. Fortunately, a video surfaced on YouTube that refuted police allegations that I was drunk, belligerent and not acting as a reporter should. Superstar attorney Mark Geragos plucked me from obscurity and represented me in a fight to clear my name.
Maybe now, I thought, I could weather this total loss of face. So I stayed silent, stuck it out and did my job the best I could. I wasn’t sure if this would destroy me. But, ultimately, it did. My relationships at work went to hell, owing chiefly to the arrest. I deeply regretted no one at CNS ever publicly responding to police claims that I was drunk and belligerent that night. No one at work had seen me take a drink in more than 20 years. They knew I had acted professionally. Yet, they did nothing to defend my honor. Instead, they allowed the fabricated police version of events to stand in the eyes of the public and my peers.
I was haunted by the words of the arresting cops. Before I even hit the pavement, one was saying, “Looks like we’ve got a drunk reporter here.” Later, some Metro officers promised I would lose my job. They had fun humiliating me, at one point joking about parading me in front of my media colleagues.
I still had faith in good and right prevailing and remained patient. But after being put on restricted duty at work, I filed a lawsuit against the LAPD in state court in 2012. Eventually, I was let go with some inane explanation that CNS couldn’t afford me.
Not long after filing the lawsuit, bizarre things happened. One was I was audited by the IRS for the first time. There were computer hackings. Suffice it to say, I’ve been emotionally and professionally gutted since that 2011 incident.
My case alleging use of excessive force by LAPD was eventually moved to U.S. District Court, and on July 29 I settled my federal civil rights lawsuit against the city for $50,000 — chump change for ending a career, but this was all I was going to get.
About the same time, syndicated editorial cartoonist Ted Rall was being fired from the Los Angeles Times for supposedly exaggerating in a blog an encounter with police more than a decade ago. Rall claims a cop handcuffed him and roughed him up after a jaywalking incident in October 2001. Rall has written about this a number of times, but now the police say they have a tape of the encounter, one which depicts the officer as just doing his job and not cuffing Rall, as the cartoonist claims.
Rall, who has had the tape analyzed by independent experts, has taken to social media to defend his honor, but few media outlets seem interested in covering it. I don’t know all the facts, but, right or wrong, it appears Rall now has the same stink on him.
It’s been observed that newspapers are dying. Sadly, so are the democratic principles that led to their creation — truth, justice, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right down to the pursuit of happiness.
I’m the lucky one. Not because I got a bag of filthy lucre, but more because I still have a voice and am unafraid to use it. The rest of the suckers — the millions of Americans without a voice and mercilessly ground up by our failing institutions; the cops, the courts, the press — just have to take their lumps and live in silent fear.
For some reason, I keep thinking of Pericles’ funeral oration honoring Athenian war dead. In it he glorifies those killed at the hands of the Spartans at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, telling the citizenry that it is noble to defend their democracy, their way of life, that it’s something worth fighting for.
Can the same be said for our form of democracy?